Des O'Brien

Back-row forward for Ireland
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Des O'Brien was one of the greatest back-row forwards of his era and one of Ireland's finest all-round sportsmen. As well as being capped 20 times by Ireland at rugby, he played 14 times for them at squash and was a Welsh hockey international and tennis reserve.

Born in Dublin, he moved to Scotland to attend Edinburgh University from Belvedere College and also had spells working and living in London and South Wales before spending the last 45 years of his life back in Edinburgh. He worked in the brewery trade after leaving university and graduated from being a sales manager for Guinness to become a director of Harp Lager.

His rugby career hit its peak in the late Forties and early Fifties when the Irish side was the pick of the crop in the northern hemisphere. Having learned his rugby at school, O'Brien graduated to Old Belvedere and won two Leinster Senior Cup titles with them in 1940 and 1941 before winning his first cap at the ripe old age of 28 in the second leg of Ireland's one and only Grand Slam season in 1948.

His selection at No 8 against England at Twickenham, while playing for London Irish, linked him with Jim McKay and Jimmy McCarthy in a back row that became renowned as one of the best trios in the world game at the time and which is still regarded as possibly the finest ever fielded by Ireland. They played together 14 times as a unit between 1948 and 1952 and Ireland won 10 and drew one of those games.

The 1948 Grand Slam was secured with a 6-3 triumph over Wales at Belfast's Ravenhill ground and was the start of golden period for the Irish team. They added a Triple Crown the next season and a third Five Nations championship title in four seasons in 1951, when O'Brien's try against Scotland at Murrayfield proved crucial in a 6-5 victory when his team were reduced to 14 men for 65 minutes.

O'Brien played 20 consecutive Tests for his country, winning 12 and drawing two, was pack leader on each occasion and captain for the five internationals in the 1951/52 season. "I found the secret of leading the Irish pack was to keep them under tight control from the start, otherwise they went off like a cavalry charge, and died away in the last 15 minutes of each half," O'Brien commented recently.

In his final season on the international stage he was working in Wales and playing for Cardiff. At that time, Cardiff were one of the greatest club sides in the world and O'Brien joined a team that had the likes of Jack Matthews, Bleddyn Williams, Rex Willis, Cliff Davies and Cliff Morgan in its ranks. He may have been an established Irish international, but tradition dictated he had to play four games for the reserves, or "Rags", before he could turn out for the first team.

He became an instant hit, both with his intelligent play on the field and his warmth and wit off it, and figured in the Cardiff side that ran the touring Springboks close in 1952. He also skippered the Irish team that went to Argentina in 1952, where they won six and drew two of their nine matches, and was offered the captaincy of Cardiff for the 1952/53 season. He declined, hung up his rugby boots and, instead, took up hockey. He went on to captain Cardiff hockey club and represent Wales, a country he also became a reserve for at tennis.

His connections with rugby didn't finish, though, and in 1966 he returned to the international arena as manager of the British & Irish Lions tour party to Australia and New Zealand. It was an arduous four-month trip that started well, with the Lions beating the Wallabies 2-0, but slumped in new Zealand where the All Blacks whitewashed their visitors 4-0 in the Test series.

O'Brien came in for criticism for his handling of the team, especially when, at the suggestion of the New Zealand Rugby Union, he took a two-week holiday in Fiji midway through the tour. But his charming persona won most people round in the end and his reputation remained as good as ever on his return.

Having lived in Wales until 1959 he moved back to Edinburgh, where he remained for the rest of his life. A renaissance man off the field, he was still studying well into his seventies, when he completed a Master's degree in architectural history.

Rob Cole